Our smoke, their sky: Canadian haze triggers everything from gags to jabs as it hits U.S. capital

Our smoke, their sky: Canadian haze triggers everything from gags to jabs as it hits U.S. capital

Being a Canadian anywhere on the eastern seaboard of the United States this week runs a risk of being inundated with smoke jokes.

A doctor quipped at a CBC News reporter during a medical checkup Thursday in Washington: "Tell your country to take its smoke back."

With that gag out of his system, the doctor shook his head in disbelief and muttered incredulously that there are still people out there doubting climate change.

That's this week, boiled down to its raw elements: One part anxiety, one part gallows humour and one part politics as gargantuan volumes of carbon drift above the continent. 

An apricot-coloured sky is creeping across the most populous region in the top half of our hemisphere, casting its haze over tens of millions of people.

Sinus-tingling smoke is suddenly Canada's most talked about export. 

It's shutting zoos. As the haze moved south, the latest was in Washington, D.C.; tourists were told they couldn't enter, while pandas, apes, bears, tigers and lions were forced indoors. 

The elephants were given a choice: they could wander in or out, as they pleased. Baseball games were cancelled in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Silhouette of women
Two students celebrating their graduation from Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, Va., pose for a selfie at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as a thick layer of smoke and the Washington Memorial give backdrop to them on Thursday, June 8, 2023. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Public health alerts were issued in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and in Washington.

As the gloom glided toward the national capital, even the most celebrated presidents saw their monuments disappear.

The Washington Monument, rendered invisible from the Capitol. The Lincoln Memorial, surrounded by smoke.

High-school seniors snapped selfies in their graduation gowns on the famous staircase where Martin Luther King delivered his I Have a Dream speech.

Of course, this being a political capital, disaster talk got political.

Across the river in Virginia, the state's Democratic and Republican parties were arguing about the forest fire on Twitter.

The Democrats called it sickly ironic that on this week, of all weeks, the Republican-led state was exiting a regional carbon-trading market.

The Republicans mocked them. "Yes," the GOP tweeted in reply. "Please tell us more about how wildfires in Canada are the fault of fossil fuels companies in the United States."

The theme played out repeatedly.

In Washington, Democrats delivered speeches on the crisis and drew an explicit connection to climate change.

At the White House, President Joe Biden mentioned it in the first sentence of a statement where he promised to send whatever help Canada needs.

"Climate change is not a hoax," said Adriano Espaillat In the U.S. House of Representatives. "Is this the future for our children?"

Silhouette in soldiers front of minument
With the Washington Monument in the background and a thick layer of smoke, the Marine Corps Color Guard rehearses on Thursday, June 8, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

In the Senate, the leader of the chamber, Chuck Schumer, gave two speeches in two days on the issue.

This is some of the worst wildfire air pollution in the history of the United States, said the New York State senator. 

"My home state looked like the scene of a scary movie," Schumer said Thursday, urging the administration to send additional personnel, atop the 600 already deployed to Canada.

"To walk in New York City yesterday was to walk on another planet.… The climate crisis is real, and it is here to stay."

There has been a significant rise in forest fires in recent decades, both in frequency and in acres burned in the United States, with warmer temperatures often cited as one significant driving factor.

Red sun behind monument shadow
The sun rises behind the Washington Monument and a thick layer of smoke, Thursday, June 8, 2023. (Julio Cortez/AP)

But a Senate Republican took aim at another target: too much regulation.

Montana's Steve Daines used the Canadian fires to call for reversing the effects of a 2015 environmental court ruling that he said has hampered efforts to manage U.S. forests.

And there's been plenty of gallows humour, like the doctor's joke.

The New York Post blamed Canada with a front page heralding this as Eh!Pocalypse Now.

Sometimes it's less clear where the joke ends. 

In another Rupert Murdoch-owned media outlet, Fox News, Jesse Watters made fun of people for making a big deal of the smoke. But he also demanded reparations from Canada in a tongue-in-cheek monologue.

"Canada dropped a smoke bomb on us," he said. "First, China hit us with the virus, then Canada hits us with a smoke bomb."

Fox News personalities mocked the dwellers of smoke-covered cities for wearing masks again. In downtown Washington, many pedestrians had put them back on Thursday.

Sean Hannity made fun of Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for lamenting how unprepared we are for the climate crisis — in our energy grids, food systems and infrastructure.

Hazy sky over stadium
Baseball games have been cancelled in different cities. Seen here: New York Yankees' Clarke Schmidt pitches earlier this week at Yankee Stadium. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

He also mockingly imitated the young, healthy people complaining about the smoke.

"I had a hard time breathing," Hannity said, imitating them. "I'm walking in the same place you're walking and I don't feel a thing.… Are they all snowflakes?"

To discuss this, Fox host Laura Ingraham had as her guest a former tobacco and oil lobbyist who today leads and serves in organizations that fight government regulation.

She derided some of the public health warnings as hysteria and teased reporting in outlets like The New York Times.

"Knee-slappingly hilarious," is how Ingraham described it.

"No one's denying [this smoke] is unpleasant. My eyes are pretty itchy and watery.… But is this wholly out of the ordinary?"

The former tobacco and oil lobbyist replied no. He said the air quality is often worse in China. (Note: the WHO and Lancet report that the air quality in China kills more than a million people per year.)

Others weren't joking.

At the Washington-area Reagan National Airport, Claudia Pineda-Tibbs referred to the sky as apocalyptic. 

She told CBC News it reminded her of the lung-stinging fires in her home state of California. And she said we're unarguably now suffering the effects of climate change.

In New York City, Ron Meisner said it reminded him of another distressing scene: the hazy sky after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

He took issue with the cover of his local tabloid.

"No, I don't blame Canada," Meisner told CBC News. 

"I feel like the whole world is not dealing with the environmental situation."